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In Search of the Anglo Saxons

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

As ‘The Dig’ – a new film about the pre-war discoveries at Sutton Hoo – hits Netflix, we are looking at that amazing site and others that tell us so much about the culture, beliefs and society of Anglo-Saxon England.

Who were the Anglo Saxons?

Before we look at the sites – who were the people we are talking about?

We use the term ‘Anglo-Saxons’ to describe a mix of people from northern Germany and Denmark who came to Britain from the mid-fifth century AD, after the collapse of Roman rule. They may have absorbed parts of the existing Romano-British population. They emerged as the main group in England till the Norman Conquest in 1066, speaking a language known to us as ‘Old English’. This era is also sometimes called the ‘Early Medieval’ period so as to encompass groups that had their own separate identities, such as the Cornish or Cumbrians and later on ‘Viking’ settlers.

To begin with, the Anglo-Saxons were pagans, later converting to Christianity.

In the early centuries, many tribal groups and then small kingdoms coalesced around leading families or parts of the former province.

A warning to the curious?

The Old English epic poem “Beowulf” depicts a rich elite culture. But until the discoveries made at Sutton Hoo in the 1930s, there had been little hard evidence to suggest that this cultural richness had been anything but legend.

There had been older antiquarian reports – such as a lost crown found in Tudor times at Rendlesham in Suffolk. That story had been the inspiration for MR James’ 1925 ghost story ‘A Warning to the Curious’, where a hobby archaeologist who has taken a Saxon crown is haunted by a ghostly guardian of burial mounds. Generally, however, the previous impression of the early Anglo-Saxons was that they were barbaric and simple compared to the great Roman empire that had crumbled away.

It would be in the former kingdom of East Anglia that the most stunning archaeological discovery at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk opened a new chapter in understanding the era.

1. Sutton Hoo: the real-life story behind Netflix’s ‘The Dig’

It’s 1937 and Britain is troubled by rumors of a coming war. But Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty is about to make a decision that will forever change how we think of the people that we call “the Anglo-Saxons”, and shed a blazing light on what was once thought of as ‘the Dark Ages’.

After the loss of her husband, withdrawn from society, she has spent more time on her estate at Sutton Hoo. Edith seeks solace in spiritualism; she also becomes fascinated by a group of 18 ancient mounds on her land. Her experiences of traveling in Egypt and of her father’s interest in archaeology tell her these mounds should be explored by a skilled excavator.

Edith makes contact with Guy Maynard, curator of Ipswich Museum, who suggests local self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown, who already carries out archaeological work on behalf of the museum, mostly in Suffolk.

The remarkable Brown, who left formal school aged 12 to work on his father’s farm, begins work at Sutton Hoo in the summer of 1938, opening up three mounds using techniques he has honed on a previous excavation.

He and a team of Edith’s labourers find that some mounds have been robbed long ago- but they do recover Anglo-Saxon finds, including tantalising evidence of part of a buried ship, like that found at Snape in Suffolk and only sketchily recorded back in 1862.

On the eve of war in 1939 Brown returns and opens what would become known as Mound 1, the biggest of the group. He and two workers from the estate expose the impression of a 27-metre long ship marked in the sandy soil and identify what may be a burial chamber. Realising this was a find of huge importance, Brown confers with Maynard. Eventually a team of university-based archaeologists -including women like Peggy Piggott- are brought in and the British Museum alerted.

The archaeologists open the chamber and gradually reveal a sensational array of finds, including the now-iconic helmet with its face mask, a ceremonial ‘whetstone’ (with the allusion to sharpening warrior’s swords) or ‘sceptre’ and purse lid. There are also objects from as far away as the eastern Mediterranean.

No longer ‘Dark Ages’

The discoveries at Sutton Hoo completely overturned the previous notion of ‘primitive’ Saxons. Here was a collection of eclectic and beautiful objects from a society with a complex artistic culture and -at least at the elite level- wide international connections. The objects were brought together in an elaborate burial requiring effort and organisation to commemorate a powerful person.

Initially, nobody was found, but retrospective analysis of the soil found phosphate traces that suggest a body had decayed in the acidic soil.

Who that person was is still open to interpretation, but most experts suggest that it was Raedwald/ Redwald, a King of East Anglia with a claim to be a ‘Bretwalda’ or ‘wide ruler’ with influence over other kingdoms, who died around 616-627 AD. Raedwald also had a foot in both the Pagan and Christian camps, which may explain the mix of symbolism in the objects from Mound 1.

Later other archaeologists would work on the site, including Rupert Bruce-Mitford (in the 60s and 70s) and Martin Carver (between 1982 and 2001).

Our predecessor organisation supported the latter’s research campaigns, for example by applying the then-new techniques of geophysical survey to the site. We also continue to work with the National Trust, which owns the site, which is legally protected by scheduling, to manage changes – like new installations for visitors needing Scheduled Monument Consent.

We can now see Sutton Hoo as representing part of the evidence for a change in Anglo-Saxon society. During the sixth century, it moved from being a less hierarchical ‘flatter’ society to one dominated by elites who are commemorated in style, with spectacularly elaborate ‘princely’ burials in the seventh century, before Christianity became more widespread later that century.

But Sutton Hoo has not been the only eye-opener in our journey of discovery.

2. A royal centre at Rendlesham

Recent surveys have revealed more details about the Royal site at nearby Rendlesham- this could have been a living centre for those buried at Sutton Hoo. Some describe this as a ‘palace’: but don’t think fairy-tale turrets and sweeping staircases- in this period imagine a big timber hall, open to the roof, with associated smaller timber buildings.

A reconstruction by Peter Dunn of an Anglo-Saxon Royal hall at Yeavering, Northumberland © Historic England Archive. Image reference IC119/001.

We funded some of the research, including testing field-walking methods there. It may have become less important in the mid-Saxon period as the river-port town of Ipswich developed…but that’s another story.

The area is now the subject of a community project Rendlesham Revealed, which aims to involve local people in learning more about the Anglo-Saxon past of the Deben Valley.

3. The Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard, first discovered in 2009, has exponentially increased our understanding of Anglo-Saxon metalwork, weaponry and our appreciation of the artistry and skill of the craftspeople that produced it. Some of the work is so fine it is difficult for a lay-person to see how it could have been achieved without modern magnifiers!

It probably dates from the seventh century AD and is made up of around 1,500 items mostly of rich warriors’ equipment and adornment, especially sword fittings. We funded their conservation and specialist research.

There are different theories as to why the artifacts were deliberately buried: in a time where there were no banks it may have been a way of hiding wealth for safekeeping away from thieves or enemies; part of a craftsman’s or armourer’s stock, perhaps buried loot from a campaign or raid or even an offering to the Gods.

4. The Prittelwell Prince

In 2003, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology Service working on a small area of land in Essex as part of a road improvement scheme revealed an elite Anglo-Saxon burial chamber. It is thought to be the earliest ‘princely’ Anglo-Saxon burial, dating to around 580-605 AD.

As with Sutton Hoo, the amazing finds took time to conserve and analyze, for the Prittlewell burial artefacts, this process lasting to 2019 was partly funded by us. Among the finds were parts of a musical instrument called a lyre – and gold foil crosses which may have been placed over the eyes of the dead person. The latter may mean the person was an early convert to Christianity, despite the pagan overtones of a burial with a range of grave goods.

5. Great Ryburgh cemetery, Norfolk

This site, discovered in 2016 during work to construct a lake, is later than the ones we’ve looked at before and brings us to a time from the later 7th to 9th century when the Anglo-Saxons adopt Christian beliefs more widely. All the graves were roughly aligned east-west (facing Jerusalem) and in contrast to the burials we’ve looked at so far in this blog, there were no grave goods to accompany the person into the afterlife or mark their status.

The remarkable thing about this site is that due to a fluke of local geology, 81 of the graves still contained wooden ‘dug-out’ log coffins, which otherwise would normally have rotted away. These were not limited to the grave of a very important individual. There were also six plank-lined graves. Traces of a wooden building may represent the remains of a chapel or church.

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